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Auction 12: The Zamorano 80 Collection of Daniel G. Volkmann Jr.

Lots 23 & 23A

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Item 23. Cowan’s monumental Bibliography of the History of California—“the bibliographic cornerstone of California history” (Kurutz).

23. COWAN, Robert Ernest (1862-1942). A Bibliography of the History of California and the Pacific West 1510-1906...Together with the Text of John W. Dwinelle’s Address on the Acquisition of California by the United States of America. San Francisco: [Edward Dewitt Taylor, John Henry Nash & Henry H. Taylor for] The Book Club of California, 1914. xxxi [3] 318 [3] pp. 4to, original tan linen over drab blue boards, printed paper spine label. Spine label chipping, otherwise very fine and fresh. From the library of one of the printers of this volume, San Francisco fine printer Edward Dewitt Taylor, with his bookplate on front pastedown (see Hart, Companion to California, p. 440).
First edition, limited edition (#8 of 250 copies); first book printed by The Book Club of California. Cowan II, p. 146. Holliday 235. Howell 50, California 1507: “The standard bibliography of California.” Huntington Library, Zamorano 80...Exhibition of Famous and Notorious California Classics 23. Streeter Sale 2323. Zamorano 80 #23. Although the 1933-1964 edition is preferred for bibliographical research, this first edition contains informative notes not found in the subsequent edition. Hart, Companion to California, p. 295: “John Henry Nash (1871-1947) 1897 moved to San Francisco where he was associated with the Tomoyé Press (1901-1911) of the bookseller Paul Elder in publishing California writings and with Taylor & Taylor (1911-1915) before founding his own firm for fine printing (1916). From it he issued lavishly designed and elegantly made books for direct sale in limited editions, but also printed for The Book Club of California, William Andrews Clark, William Randolph Hearst, and other customers and patrons. His publications...all were done in a grandly impressive style.” See Gary F. Kurutz, An Essay on Robert E. Cowan’s “A Bibliography of California and the Pacific West, 1510-1906” (San Francisco: The Book Club of California, 1993). ($300-600)

23A. COWAN, Robert Ernest & Robert Graniss Cowan. A Bibliography of the History of California 1510-1930. San Francisco: John Henry Nash, 1933. v [1, blank] 337 + [2, title] [339]-704 + [4] 705-825 (index) pp. 3 vols., 4to, original half beige linen over tan boards, printed paper spine labels. Exceptionally fine, in publisher’s original terracotta cloth box (remains of original printed label on box).
Second edition, revised and enlarged, limited edition (650 copies). Cowan II, p. 146. Howell 50, California 1508. Streeter Sale 2324. (3 vols.) ($250-500)


Robert E. Cowan, the foremost authority on Californiana and Western Americana, wrote the first systematic bibliography of California history in book form. Beautifully designed by John Henry Nash and printed by Taylor, Nash, and Taylor in an edition of 250 copies, it is also the first book published by The Book Club of California. This represented a pioneering effort and paved the way for the Club’s long and distinguished publishing program. Cowan’s work, for the time period it covers, remains to this day the bibliographic cornerstone of California history.
In compiling this bibliography, Cowan selected what he considered to be the thousand most important titles on California history. He boiled down the selection from an initial list of over seven thousand items, many of which he considered too ephemeral or inappropriate for a formal bibliography. The great joy in this compendium is not only the wise choices but also the fabulous notes that accompanied over six hundred of the entries. Cowan’s annotations make the book a delight to read, enlightening the reader with salient bibliographic data and memorable and sometimes amusing anecdotes concerning the books he described. To illustrate, he wrote thirty-one fact-filled lines of text about Charles P. Kimball’s San Francisco directory for 1850 and a page and half on Francisco Palóu’s Noticias de la Nueva California (1874). He could not resist editorializing as demonstrated by his notes on Henry Huntley’s California: Its Gold and Its Inhabitants (London, 1856): “Entertaining reading, tinctured occasionally by the mild sarcasm of an English baronet, whose dignity sometimes encountered a mild shock.” He supported the bibliography with title and subject indexes.
Upon publication, Cowan and his publisher received both applause and criticism. T. J. Cobden-Sanderson of Doves Press fame and Hubert Howe Bancroft, the great historian and collector, sang its praises. Cobden-Sanderson wrote the bookman a congratulatory letter commenting “It is as interesting as beautiful.” On the other hand, Herbert I. Priestley of the Bancroft Library wrote a stinging review attacking it on multiple fronts ranging from the small number of titles described to its deckle edges. Cowan responded to his critic, calling him “somewhat amateurish” and “reptilian.” He further pointed out that the Club had asked him to write a selective and not a comprehensive bibliography.
The Book Club sold their first title for the then steep price of $20.00 a copy and sales predictably lagged. However, as time passed, copies became hard to find and the bibliographer, then working as William Andrews Clark’s librarian, embarked on an expanded and updated edition. The Book Club of California, struggling to weather the Great Depression, decided to release Cowan to publish the bibliography on his own with his son, Robert Graniss Cowan, as coauthor. John Henry Nash, the noted San Francisco fine printer, designed and printed the text. The new edition came out in 1933 in two volumes with a separate index volume, all housed in a handsome slipcase. It included over 5,000 titles, deleted the words “The Pacific West” from the title, and took the entries up to 1930. Expansion of numbers did come with a price: Cowan had to slash or eliminated his notes. For this reason, the 1914 first edition, with its robust annotations, has not been superceded. In 1952, Long’s College Book Company published a new edition of the 1914 version with an introduction by Henry R. Wagner and additional notes by the bibliographer’s son, Robert G. Cowan. In 1964, the son further contributed to his father’s legacy by writing a fourth volume of new titles “to fill some of the gaps.” Finally, the same year he published Volume 4, Robert G. Cowan issued a four-volumes-in-one facsimile edition. Because of their prodigious work, any serious bookman delving into Californiana will always cite “Cowan” and admire the artful notes.

——Gary F. Kurutz

Additional sources consulted: Kenneth Karmiole, California Printing: A Selected List of Books Which Are Significant or Representative of a California Style of Printing, Part II (San Francisco: The Book Club of California, 1984), entry #20; Gary F. Kurutz, An Essay on Robert E. Cowan’s “A Bibliography of California and the Pacific West, 1510-1906” (San Francisco: The Book Club of California, 1993).

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